The town has seen hundreds killed or wounded each day in bloody frontal attacks, yet holds little military significance
By Ben Farmer IN KYIV. 9 December 2022 •
Peering through a telescope looking for enemy movement in no-man’s land, the Ukrainian soldier points out a warehouse held by Russian forces.
The adversaries are only 300 or 400 yards from their fighting position, uphill across a shattered landscape of blown out buildings and barren fields.
“They throw their meat at us,” says another soldier beside him, grimly referring to the human wave of assaults carried out by Russian mercenaries and poorly-equipped reservists.
Behind the Ukrainian fighting position, which they defend with a PKM heavy machine gun, are the largely abandoned remains of a once-thriving Donetsk town whose name has become synonymous with the most intense and costly fighting of Vladimir Putin’s invasion.
Bakhmut was once home to 70,000 people and known for both salt-mining and its sparkling wine industry. Since the summer, the town has instead often seen hundreds killed or wounded each day in intense shelling and bloody frontal attacks, in fighting reminiscent of the First World War.
Large parts of its eastern suburbs have been obliterated by artillery and the fields are pitted with craters. The destruction has come in a clash for a city that many analysts say has little strategic value to the Russians.
Even if Moscow were to take Bakhmut, it is unclear Russia’s degraded forces would be able to capitalise on the gain to make further advances.
Some conflict experts say Russia’s obsession with Bakhmut has become nothing more than a ploy to drain Ukraine’s armed forces of their limited resources.
“We are scratching our heads,” a Western official said this week when asked about Russia’s focus on Bakhmut. “We don’t know the answer.”
Moscow is said to be desperate for a victory after humiliating reverses elsewhere.
Russian commanders are making creeping gains with the aid of huge artillery support, even as they have lost significant ground around Kharkiv and Kherson.
Yet the very intensity of the Russian offensive and the steep casualties borne by the defenders under relentless barrages have also made it totemic for Ukrainian forces.
“This is the centre of our indomitability,” says Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s national security council.
Some Ukrainian troops describe the defence of Bakhmut as being a new Mariupol, referring to the battle for the steel city on the Azov sea where defenders were besieged in the early months of the invasion. Others simply refer to it as the meat grinder, because of the terrible toll of the fighting and the apparent disregard Russian commanders have for their troops.
Bakhmut has been under shelling since May, but the assault intensified in August after the fall of the surrounding cities of Popasna, Severodonetsk, and Lysychansk.
Yard-by-yard the encroaching Russian forces have got within only a few miles of the city centre, after capturing two strategic crossroads to the east and north east of the city.
In recent days, Russian forces are also thought to have taken limited ground to the south of the city, as they seek to encircle the town and strangle the defenders.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, a key ally of Mr Putin and founder of Russia’s Wagner Group private military company, is thought to have promised the Russian leader that he can take the city, as he jockeys for position with other regime favourites. Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen leader, has also sent forces to join the assault.
Mr Danilov said: “I think that someone from the Russian side has made a commitment that he will take Bakhmut as a gift for Putin.
“Taking into account that there is a group of Kadyrov and Prigozhin, it is likely that one of them took it upon himself. They use all the weapons they have there, they bring troops there from everywhere.”
‘It’s a town Russia wants to be seen to capture’
Ben Barry, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said that Bakhmut had no more military significance than other similar-sized towns along hundreds of miles of front line.
“But it has political significance as a town the Russian leadership wants to be seen to capture. It may also be that any role Wagner has in capturing it would amplify the political position of its owner.”
Mr Prigozhin himself has said he is using the offensive to wear down Ukrainian forces, rather than capture the city, though he may also be trying to manage expectations of victory.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank, this week said: “Putin’s current fixation with continuing offensive operations around Bakhmut and elsewhere is contributing to Ukraine’s ability to maintain the military initiative in other parts of the theatre”.
Whatever Russia’s calculations, the battle is sucking in troops and material from both sides, as Ukraine’s international allies race to keep it supplied with weapons to resist the onslaught.
Ukrainian commanders say Russian losses in the area have been as high as 100 to 300 on some days. Ukrainian forces themselves are paying a high price to hold the city however, in the face of sometimes overwhelming artillery.
“For every artillery piece we have, they have nine,” explained one soldier.
Footage from inside Ukrainian field hospitals shows surgeons trying to stabilise on a steady stream of badly wounded soldiers.
Anton Gerashchenko, an advisor to the interior ministry, last week said doctors in Bakhmut were performing miracles, but “deal with an unbelievable amount of suffering every day, every hour as they work tirelessly”.
Incredibly, some are still living in the city, though an estimated 90 per cent of the pre-war population is thought to have left. Those that remain are the impoverished and elderly with nowhere to go, and those too stubborn to leave.
The largely empty streets are strewn with rubble from the daily Russian bombardment, and the remaining residents no longer have heat, electricity, phone connections, or running water.
Neighbours gather above ground during the day, taking advantage of the short lulls in the constant shelling to chop firewood and cook food in the winter gloom.
Some no longer care about the outcome of the war, they simply want it to stop.
“Who needs this war?” says 46-year-old Tatiana, with tears in her eyes. Her injured husband Anatoli, 54, looks up at her helpless from his hospital bed. “For what reason are they still fighting?”
The couple lost their home when artillery shells struck their house in south east Bakhmut a month ago. Anatoli suffered shrapnel wounds to his stomach, legs, and arms.
Two town centre grocery shops are still open, but most Bakhmut residents rely on humanitarian aid from the handful of civilian volunteers who brave enemy artillery to provide a lifeline to those who still remain.
Oleg, 47, a local orthodox church priest, makes perilous weekly runs into the city in his yellow van to deliver bread, powdered soup, paracetamol and water.
“Do you want a Bible as well?” he yells to recipients above the dull roar of incoming and outgoing fire, before quickly hurrying off, because it is dangerous to stay in one place for long.
Sad and painful to read. Especially during the season of goodwill.
“For every artillery piece we have, they have nine,” explained one soldier.”
That is just unacceptable after 10 months of putler’s Holocaust that the defenders still don’t have nearly enough artillery.